Nolan Preece’s current show at the Stremmel Gallery, Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reimagined, can be understood as a catalog of chemical textures, enlisted to impersonate the natural environment. “Chemigram” is a term coined by the Belgian artist Pierre Cordier, who knows and has endorsed Preece’s work. The method falls under the umbrella of “cameraless photography”—an image is produced by painting or manipulating chemicals on the surface of photo paper, then putting the paper through a development process whereby the interaction between chemicals and emulsion leave visible traces. For this body of work, Preece coaxes the process to materialize textures that mimic cracked mountainsides, sinuous trees, shivering surfaces of water—and in one instance, a rising flock of birds, which appear to be fragmenting into origami as they vault into the air.
The unique chemical agent Preece used for the majority of these pieces was acrylic floor finish. I didn’t think to ask him which brand actually does the best job of leaving a floor gleaming and slip-resistant, but for the purposes of Art, he recommends First Street Super–Crylic.
It seems like for the cameraless photography you have done, there is a play between the abstraction that comes out of the chemical processes on the one hand, and images (or figuration) on the other hand.
I’m kind of considered a pioneer with the chemigram because I started out with it in 1981. And taking it through a bunch of different ropes, I guess you might say, to come to where I’m at now. And this whole thing with acrylic floor finish is my discovery, or invention, or whatever you want to call it.
I derived it from work in printmaking [when I was teaching], or intaglio printmaking, where we were using floor finish as a hard ground on the plate, to resist the acid when we etched the plate. One day in 2011 I decided I’d try to put some of that on a sheet of photo paper, and I was so surprised at what happened, I said: “I’ve really got something new here.” My wife didn’t see me for three or four days.
I was trying everything I could, and I don’t know of anyone else who’s working in this acrylic floor finish. I use any of the ones that have acrylic in them—like Mop & Glo, Quick Shine, Pledge—there’s one I really like called First Street Super-Crylic. I’m trying to push the chemigram in as many different directions as I can right now. Of course I’m getting up in years and I’d like to see how far I can take it.
Take me through the process of “Yosemite”—it looks like the rock face and the trees have been created through a chemical photographic process, but the sky seems distinctly different.
[The rock face was] put on there with a piece of PVC pipe, squirting it [with floor finish] and pulling it across the paper. And you can see where I may have stopped occasionally as I was going across the paper, to create those crevices coming down the rock.
Like using a squeegee.
Yeah, you can use a puddle pusher, which is a glass rod with a handle on it, or you can use a PVC pipe. I run it across the paper, and it puts an even coat on there. Then it will start to crack in about 30 minutes to an hour.
I make trees on a separate sheet of paper, and then I collage them together in the image that I’m working on. But it’s all chemigram. The sky is the only thing—sometimes I can come up with interesting clouds, but then there are times I need to do something else, with Photoshop.
Are these physically collaged, or are you digitally cutting them out, and ultimately your final project is a digital print that has been pieced together in Photoshop?
I collage them using Photoshop, and each one of those trees is a different layer I can bring over. I [decided] to decorate it with something other than a rock face—and so I started making trees. Trees are a recent invention of mine. It seems like I’m able to do it with a brush, and one of those natural sponges. I can dip it in the floor finish and dab it on there to make it look like a tree.
Now in that process, I hope you understand it’s required to go through developer and fixer, developer and fixer, back and forth, in photographic solutions to create the image. You can’t even see it [at first] on the sheet of paper. Those floor finishes are clear. But once you slip them into the developer, or the fixer first, whichever you want to do, the image starts to appear, going in through all those cracks.
If you’ve ever made a black and white print, going from developer, stop bath, and fix, then you kind of understand I’m using them in the way you’re not supposed to use them—putting it in the fixer and then putting it in the developer.
I’m always interested in transfers between art practices and science practices. I’m curious how you define experimentation, which is a word that’s used both in the arts and in the sciences, where there’s some crossover—but there are also some distinctions.
Well, it’s a matter of trial and error, really. I’ll make something, and I’ll say, well, if I adjust it this way … it is sort of scientific methodology. That’s how science works a lot of the time—you try something, it doesn’t work, but you see something in there that’s kind of starting to work. And you go, well, if I pursue that avenue, I’ll come across what I’m looking for. It’s trial and error, and you have to not give up on it. I’ll go through 10 sheets of paper, and there’s nothing there.
My wife’s a research scientist, and we talk about this a little bit. You have a kind of hypothesis, and you actually try to prove it.
One quality of experimentation is failure, and tolerance of failure is really important for both scientists and artists.
Scientists view failure as an important thing, because they’ve come to some type of conclusion, and that’s something that’s important to future research. And possibly there’s something in there that might be worth researching further. Failure is not looked at as a bad thing, necessarily.
Although ultimately, I’m sure if you showed up at Stremmel with 27 blank sheets, they’d look at you funny.
Well, yeah, you’re absolutely right. I would have learned that I couldn’t make one.
Your piece “Forte“, for me, operates in a different register than the “Yosemite” one. In “Yosemite,” you’re enlisting these textures in ways that suggest figurative forms. And this one seems to be existing on this level of—if not pure abstraction, then in a more abstract state.
This is acrylic, once again, on a piece of photo paper. I zoomed in on one little section about 4×5 in size, and I enlarged it with the scan. This is what I search for—these little textural things. And then I really modified the colors in Photoshop.
I started out making abstractions. But then, my agent in New York City, we were trying to get the abstracts launched for a bunch of museums across the country, and they weren’t going over so well. And she asked me to send her an image for a Christmas card, and it was a landscape of what I’d done. The phone was ringing off the hook! We had all these museums wanting me to do a show, and I said, “Is that all I had to do, make a landscape?”
That’s where I’m at. I’m using the landscape as the vehicle to get me exploring anywhere I want to go with the different variety of techniques.
I was wondering if you feel there’s any irony embedded in this method where you’re using this very industrial chemical process to create images, while you’re depicting a landscape that seems free of industrial processes.
I haven’t ever really thought of the industrial connection there too much, because so many painting mediums are industrial things anyway—acrylics are plastic.
There’s one piece in [the Stremmel show] there that’s not a chemigram, it’s Mordançage. I don’t like to use that process, because it’s highly toxic chemistry—you have to have the window open and a fan blowing from behind me to get it out of there. I’m getting more fussy about what I use because of my age—these things can take you down in a hurry, if you get the wrong toxic substance. The acrylic is no problem. It doesn’t give off any fumes. It’s easy to work with.
You want to leave a legacy, but not too soon.
That’s right. I want to get as much mileage out of it as I can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nolan Preece’s solo exhibition Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reimagined is on view at Stremmel Gallery in Reno through Dec. 23.
This article was funded by a grant from the City of Reno Arts + Culture Commission.